Sermon for Pentecost 3A

Matthew 10:24-39 & Jeremiah 20:7-13

When I was in the process of hearing God’s call upon my life to become an ordained pastor, there were some frightening points in the journey. One of those points came when I made the decision to leave the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and come to the ELCA. What made this scary is that, while I had made the decision in my mind and in my heart that this is what God was calling me towards, I now had to tell my friends and my family what I was going to do. And what I feared most about this was losing those friends and family who would have a problem with women being pastors. I knew that my immediate family would support me: my parents love me, and I think my brother probably was wondering why I hadn’t done this a long time ago. But the conversation that I was most nervous about was the one with my maternal grandmother, who was the wife of a Missouri Synod pastor, and a rather conservative one at that. In the end, that conversation went much better than I expected it to, and after my maternal grandfather died from Alzheimer’s, my grandmother gifted me with his stoles. And most of my friends in the Missouri Synod have stayed friends with me, even if they don’t completely agree with what I am doing. But there was one friend I had who started being actively unsupportive and derogatory of me on Facebook. And finally, I had to cut the bonds that I had with him because of it. And so I resonate with Jesus’ saying that we have in our Gospel reading today: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

As much as we like to think of Jesus as someone who loves us and cares for us—and he is all of that and more—Jesus is also someone who has some difficult things to say to us. The life of discipleship is not an easy one, and if we think it is—if we are coming to church just so that we will “look good” to people around us—then we do not understand what following Jesus is truly about. Jesus tells us today that following him will demand much from us. Jesus tells us that following him will divide us from both our family members and those we thought were our friends. And Jesus tells us that we, too, must take up our cross in order to follow him.

I would like to speak more today about what taking up our cross and following Jesus means and doesn’t mean. First of all, we have a saying in our culture about something or someone being “our cross to bear”. Usually what that means is that we have a neighbor or family member who is a nuisance and a drain upon our lives, but with whom we cannot cut our bonds, for whatever reason. I really don’t think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Remember that a cross was a Roman instrument of execution. And not only was it an instrument of execution, it was an instrument of torture—people who were put on the cross could hang there for days in utter agony before they finally died of suffocation or exposure. And not only was the cross an instrument of torture and execution, it was also one of humiliation: the person who was hung on the cross had to carry the instrument of his death through the crowds, to the place of execution, and suffer the jeers of the crowds. Having a neighbor or a family member who is a nuisance or a drain on your life is really nothing in comparison to what the cross was really about.

Secondly, taking up your cross and following Jesus does not mean living in an abusive situation. For too long, pastors have counseled female parishioners who are experiencing abuse from their husbands to stay in that relationship, because the husband is supposedly the wife’s “cross to bear”. I’m going to say right now that this is absolute nonsense. Even though Jesus experienced physical abuse when he took up his cross and died for us, that is not the same kind of abuse as what happens in a marital relationship where things have gone wrong. If any of you in the congregation today are in that kind of relationship, I encourage you to do what you can to get out of it. And please know that I am a safe space, and I will do everything within my ability to help you.

So far, I have spoken about what taking up your cross and following Jesus is not about. It is not about dealing with a neighbor or family member who is a nuisance. It is not about staying in an abusive marital relationship. So what, then, is it about? From the context of the other things that Jesus tells us today, part of what taking up your cross and following Jesus is about is this: when we witness to what Jesus has taught us, and when we live out those teachings in our lives, and when we suffer abuse and misunderstanding for that, then we are getting close to what Jesus meant by taking up the cross and following him. So, what does this look like?

I think this is why, paired with today’s reading from Matthew, we get a reading from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived a long time before Jesus did. But, had he heard Jesus’ teaching, I am sure that he would have agreed with it. Jeremiah was a prophet who lived in Jerusalem right before the Babylonians conquered the city in 586 BC. God tasked Jeremiah with telling the king and the people of Jerusalem that the Babylonians would be victorious and the people would be taken into exile. This was, obviously, not a popular message. Jerusalem was where God’s Temple was; it was the place where God, the one God, came down to earth to meet with God’s people. There was no way that God would let the Babylonians conquer God’s city. And there were many false prophets who were soothing the king with words of peace and suggestions to ally themselves with Egypt so that the Babylonians would be defeated. Can you imagine what it must have been like for Jeremiah to speak the true word from God that was the exact opposite of what the people wanted to hear and believe? At one point, they threw Jeremiah into a dry well and left him there to die; it was only when a servant in the king’s house pleaded for Jeremiah that he was rescued and pulled up out of the well.

The reading that we have from Jeremiah today gives us a window into how the prophet was feeling about this calling from God. And he was not happy. He loved his country; he loved his people; he did not want this sad duty to tell the people that God was sending them into exile. And yet, he says that when he decided not to speak anymore in God’s name, “then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” Even though Jeremiah lived long before Jesus did, this is an example of what taking up the cross and following Jesus looks like: speaking the truth to a world that is not always ready to face up to what it has done wrong, much less one that is willing to fix the injustices that it has created. Taking up the cross and following Jesus means speaking the truth and realizing that, by so doing, we are putting our allegiance to God before our family, and by speaking God’s words, creating a division between us and our families.

As people who follow Jesus, what is that burning fire that is shut up within our bones? And are we weary with holding it in? How is God speaking through us? And are we willing to be divided from family and friends who don’t agree with us, for the sake of speaking necessary words to the world around us? In short, are we ready to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake, so that we might find our lives? These kinds of questions will take much study of the Scriptures and much soul searching, and we may not like the answers that we hear from God. They may even spark some genuine fear as we begin to realize what Jesus is calling us to do.

Yet the good news is this: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” We have nothing to be afraid of, for God knows who we are. And God loves us so much that he gave up his Son, Jesus, to that torturous and humiliating death on the cross for us. We will never live up to Jesus’ standards for taking up the cross and following him, no matter how hard we try. And that’s okay, because we don’t have to: Jesus has already done it for us.

So, we have nothing to fear. Let us speak the truth that Jesus has given us to say to the world. Let us not hold back, but let us speak up for the poor, for the vulnerable, for good stewardship of the creation which God has given us, and for all of those things which God would have us speak about. This world needs to hear the message that God loves us, that God values each one of us—black, white, Hispanic, Native American, etc.–so much that all of the hairs on our head are counted, that God has given us enough so that all people may have good health and a full life, and that God wants all people to live in peace with one another and to help one another. Such a good message to hear, and yet the world will not always respond well to this message. We may suffer humiliation of various kinds as we bring this message to the world. But this is what taking up the cross and following Jesus means. So, let us be bold and speak out. Amen.



Sermon for Pentecost 2A

Matthew 9:35-10:23

Several years ago, I was at an in-between stage in my life’s journey, waiting for God to lead me to the next stop. I was living at home with my parents, and my mother and I were both doing temp work at an office in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was about a 45-minute drive from where my parents lived. One day, as my mother and I were driving home from the office on a warm summer evening, we looked to the side of the road and saw several men dressed in monk’s habits walking along the road. We were a little startled, because, after all, you don’t often see a group of monks walking along a rural road in the mountains of Virginia. But, we continued on our way home and forgot about the incident. Until, a day or two later, we saw an article about the monks in our local paper. It turns out this group of monks was on a pilgrimage—I can’t remember exactly where they were going—and for shelter at night, they would knock on the door of someone’s house and offer to do chores in return for a meal and a place to sleep, even if that place to sleep was in the garage or the barn. And most of the folks whose doors they knocked on did offer them that hospitality. It gave me hope that there are still good, kind people out there in the world. And I admired these monks, who seemed to be taking Jesus’ instructions in today’s Gospel very seriously: taking no additional baggage along with them, but asking for help and for hospitality as they journeyed from one place to another.

When I saw today’s Gospel lesson, I didn’t quite know at first how the Holy Spirit would lead me to preach on this. After all, when I go from one place to another, I take my stuff with me. When I made the journey here from Wyoming, I made plans: while I did give away many things and threw many things out, I still had lots of stuff that I had to move across the country. I booked hotels along the way, and I had to make sure they were hotels that would let me bring my animals. I don’t know what it’s like to simply set out on a journey to proclaim the good news with nothing but myself and trust in other people to shelter me. And in today’s society, doing such a thing would require even more faith in God’s protection, especially as a woman, because it means becoming vulnerable to attacks from strangers who are not willing to provide hospitality. So, what do we do with this text that is the appointed reading for today?

Well, let’s start by acknowledging something about ourselves: We don’t like to be vulnerable. To illustrate this point, I’d like to share with you a story about something that happened to me on my internship, about 6 years ago. As many of you know, I was in Lancaster doing my internship at Holy Trinity Lutheran. If you were here at my installation service last week, the pastor who preached that day was my internship supervisor. At the time, my name and my biography was on Trinity’s website, and included in that biography was the information that I had spent time in Taiwan as a volunteer missionary. One day, only a few weeks before I was set to finish my internship and go back to Gettysburg to complete seminary, I received a call from a pastor in Washington State asking for help. It seems that a young lady from China was coming over to the U.S. on a summer work visa, but at the last minute, her summer work had been switched from Washington to Lancaster, PA. Would I be able to help this young woman find housing and make sure she wouldn’t be taken advantage of?

With my supervisor’s approval, I took on this challenge. When we couldn’t find affordable housing right away, I offered her the couch in my one-bedroom apartment that was being filled up with boxes as I was preparing to move back to Gettysburg. It was a great inconvenience to me, but I didn’t see what else I could do at that point if I didn’t want this young lady to be on the street. As it turned out, I ended up learning a lot about her and about some of the injustices in our visa system that year. But then, God turned the tables on me. The very last week of my internship, I somehow managed to come down with a bad case of laryngitis. My unexpected visitor from China decided to return some of the hospitality that I had shown her. She had brought lots of tea with her from China, and she started making hot tea for me, as well as other hot dishes to soothe my throat. And you know what? I didn’t like it that she did this for me. What I discovered is that I can extend hospitality to others, and that I often see this as part of Jesus’ calling on my life, but that I’m really bad at accepting hospitality from others. And perhaps part of that, too, was that she extended hospitality to me much more willingly than I had to her.

I think, if we are honest with ourselves, we can all admit that we are like that. Because accepting hospitality from others means admitting that we are vulnerable, and that we need help from others, and we don’t like that. Especially in American culture, most of us are raised to be independent and to do for ourselves. Asking for help is considered to be a sign of weakness. And so, we look at Jesus’ instructions to his disciples today and we tell ourselves that this is impractical and it is unsafe and that surely Jesus doesn’t want us to put our lives in danger, does he? But what if we’re wrong? What if Jesus is calling us, his church in North America, to admit that we’re vulnerable and that we need help? What would that even look like?

One way that this might happen is to put ourselves into the place of the people around us who are in a vulnerable situation in life. And that starts with having compassion on them. Part of our text today says that Jesus had “compassion for [the crowds], because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. Now, the Greek word that gets translated as “having compassion for,” is one of my favorite words, splachnizomai. In Greek culture, the seat of the emotions was not in the heart, like we have it today, but rather in the bowels, and this word that is translated as “having compassion for” literally means “feeling like your insides are coming out.” Have you ever felt such compassion for someone that you felt like your insides were coming out? Has the grief of another person so overcome you that you start weeping, too? That’s what having compassion on someone truly feels like.

Having compassion on others means that other people are not a political sound bite and they are not something to be afraid of, but rather, that they are ordinary people facing some tough things in life, just like we are. For example, it’s one thing for politicians to say that those who are poor should not be relying so much on government programs, but rather should be going out and finding work. It’s another thing entirely to be confronted in person by the mother whose husband has left her, who has several children, and is working two jobs just to make ends meet, and who would not be able to afford to put food on her table were it not for those government programs. Another example: it’s one thing to say that of course, we welcome immigrants if they come here legally. It’s another thing to look into the desperate face of a person who has no chance of coming here legally because of the cost and the bureaucracy and the very real possibility that she will be rejected, but who is facing such violence in her home country that she is willing to do whatever is necessary to escape and to give her children a chance of having a better life.

Jesus sends us out. He sends us out of our church buildings and into our communities. He sends us out to “proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” He sends us out to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers,” and to “cast out demons.” He sends us out and tells us to give without expectation of payment, but to accept whatever hospitality is given us. Our violent world needs this good news of compassion more than ever. Because it is only when we have compassion for others; it is only when we feel our insides coming out, that we can do the things which Jesus has commanded us to do. And when that happens, when we truly listen to the stories of others, and when we truly have compassion on them, it is then that we can bring the peace of Jesus into their lives.

I saw this little story on social media yesterday, as I was finishing up this sermon, and I wanted to share it with you, because I think it fits:

A rabbi asked,” How can you recognize the time when night ends and day begins?”
“Is it when, from a great distance, you can tell a dog from a sheep?” one student asked. “No,” said the rabbi. “Is it when, from a great distance, you can tell a date palm from a fig tree?” another asked. “No,” said the rabbi. “Then when is it?” they asked. “It is when you look into the face of any human creature and see your brother or your sister there. Until then, night is still with us.”

So, let’s practice being vulnerable with one another. Let’s admit to one another that we don’t always have it together and that we need help. Let’s have compassion on one another. Let’s feel our insides coming out for the other person. Let’s stop reducing people to nameless masses and political sound bites, but instead learn about their stories and how they’ve come to the place in life that they have. We will still not always agree with one another, but to have compassion means that we can admit that we are vulnerable, too, and that we don’t know what we would do in those particular circumstances. And then let’s go out with the good news that the kingdom of heaven is near, and bring healing and peace to the world. Amen.


Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Come with me back in time, if you will, but not all the way back to the creation of the world. Our journey will stop in the year 586 BC, and we will look in on the Middle East, in the area known as the kingdom of Judah. The northern kingdom of Israel had been conquered and scattered long before this, in the year 722 BC, while the southern kingdom of Judah remained for a couple hundred years longer than that, with its capital being Jerusalem. But even though this kingdom was tiny and seemingly inconsequential on the world stage, it had the great misfortune of lying directly in the path of the two world powers of that time: to the southwest, Egypt, and to the northeast, Babylon, the area that we know of today as Iraq. As Babylon and Egypt vied for power, Judah was caught in the middle, and, to make a very long story short, Judah was conquered by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in the year 586 BC. When that happened, most of the population in Jerusalem and the surrounding area was dragged off into exile in Babylon.

So, I’d like for you to imagine this, if you can: you are an Israelite living in Jerusalem at this time. You believe that God, the one God, has made the Temple in Jerusalem God’s dwelling place. This is where God comes down to meet humanity. You have heard the rumbles of the coming Babylonian army, but with God on your side, you never think that the Babylonians will actually be victorious. And then, the unthinkable has happened, and you, with your family and your friends, are shackled in chains and marched off to Babylon, a strange culture where strange gods are worshiped. When you get there, you are confronted with this strange culture, and, wherever you have been placed, you discover that you must find a way to fit in or you risk punishment and even death. What do you do? Do you find ways to maintain your national and religious identity, even while seeming to fit in on the surface? Or do you give up everything you are and become someone new?

You’re probably wanting to ask me what this has to do with our readings today. Well, scholars think that the creation story that we just heard was written down by the Jewish community living in exile in Babylon after 586 BC. That’s not to say that the story wasn’t told orally before then; in most of human history, oral culture exists long before anyone thinks to write things down. But the Babylonians had a very different creation story than the Jewish people did. Instead of a god who made everything good, the Babylonians’ story of creation involved gods who fought and killed one another. The world was created by one of their gods from the bloodied corpse of a dead god. And human beings were created from the blood of yet another dead god to serve the whims of all the gods above.

This is what the Israelites were coming into when they entered Babylon as exiles. Besides being a pretty gruesome creation story, it justified King Nebuchadnezzar’s (and all other Babylonian kings) rule over the people and the atrocities he committed. If Nebuchadnezzar was seen as the representative, or image of his god, and his god could kill and use other gods’ bodies as he wished, then Nebuchadnezzar could also use people as he wished. He could enslave and kill and exile people with no thought of any consequences. And so, as an act of rebellion against this narrative of the dominant culture, the Israelites who chose to remember who they were as people of their God wrote down their own creation story.

And what a creation story it is! In contrast to the Babylonian gods, we see a God who is even more powerful than they are. The Babylonian gods need the bloodied corpses of other gods in order to create the world. Not so for the one God worshiped by the Jewish exiles: their God can create out of nothing, simply by saying, “Let there be. . .” And when God makes something, God calls it good. If you notice, the creation story never says why God creates the world and all that is in it. It just says that God commands, “Let there be. . .” and whatever it is comes into being. It’s almost as if God is dancing around and testing what “Let there be. . .” actually brings into being, and then God finds absolute delight in the things that have been created. God loves the creation, simply because God made it. And it’s absolutely wonderfully good.

And then God decides that part of the creation must bear God’s image. And so God makes human beings. And God makes them both male and female: both men and women bear God’s image. Neither one is disposable. And when God has done that, God is absolutely, completely satisfied with the creation. The creation is just as God intended it to be, and God not only calls it good, God calls it very good. This is not a God who kills in order to bring to life, like the Babylonian gods. This is a God who respects and who loves life in all of its infinite variety, and who can create life, beautiful life, out of absolutely nothing.

We Christians have inherited this beautiful creation story from the Jewish people, and yet, I don’t know that we are fully able to appreciate the beauty and the wonder of it. We use it as a weapon in creation vs. evolution debates in the school. We argue over whether the seven days of creation were literal 24-hour days or were metaphorical days intended to represent longer periods of time. We think that God’s directive to human beings to have dominion over the creation means that we can do whatever we want to the environment with no consequences. In short, this story often has very little meaning for us anymore. Even I, as a pastor, would rather talk about the more intimate account of God molding Adam from the earth that we see in chapter 2 of Genesis.

And yet, here we have this story, and it is part of our Holy Scriptures. And besides an appreciation for the God who creates everything out of nothing, and a wonder for all of the things God has created, I want to talk about one very important thing: what it means to be made in the image of God. Now, much ink has been spilled over this by many theologians over many centuries, so I don’t want you to think that I am giving you the definitive answer over what the image of God means. But here are some of my ideas:

First, let’s go back to the Babylonian creation story. If the Babylonian king is the image of his god, who killed other gods in order to create the world and human beings, and who made human beings to be slaves to him, then it follows that the Babylonian king, as the image of his god, could kill and enslave other people with no consequences. In contrast, if our God made human beings in God’s image, and called them very good, and blessed them, then it follows that, as God’s image, we are called to participate in the act of creation with God, and to call that creation good. Now, because we are sinful, not all of what we create is going to be good, but that’s a discussion for another chapter of Genesis. But any time we create new life, or help others to live, then we reflect the image of God.

And this brings me to my second point. Each one of us has something of the image of God in her or in him. That means that, when we look upon one another, we should be remembering that something that looks like God is looking back at us. We are to see God in one another, and we are to love and respect one another as if we are loving and respecting God. The Hindi language has a word for this that you may have heard before: Namaste. It means something like this: “I bow to the divine in you.” On the one hand, that might make us as Christians a bit uncomfortable. But on the other hand, if we had a greeting like this for one another in Christianity, it might make us more able to respect one another and forgive one another, even when we are in the midst of conflict.

And this brings me to my third and final point: we hear this creation story on the day when we honor the Trinity: God as Three-in-One and One-in-Three. I’m not going to try to explain the Trinity to you; no one can, and every time someone has tried, someone else condemns the first person as a heretic. This is one of those things that you have to take on faith. But many theologians have suggested that what the Trinity, what God is about, is relationship. Somehow, in some mysterious way, God is in relationship with Godself. And God wants to be in relationship with us, too; that part of God’s creation that is running around bearing God’s image. And God wants us to be in relationship with one another, and to love one another as God loves us. That’s a tough thing for us to do, and often, when we are frustrated with one another, it will be hard to see God’s image in the other person. But that is who God has made us to be, and on our worst days, we still, somehow, have a bit of God’s image in us.

Relationships are difficult for us human beings. We mess up a lot when we speak to one another, either intentionally or unintentionally causing hurt. Sometimes we have good relationships that last for a long time, and other times we hurt others so much that we irreparably destroy relationships. But one thing that we cannot do is to not have any relationships at all. When a God who is in relationship with Godself as a mysterious Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity creates something in God’s own image, then part of that image must mean that we are born to be in relationship with one another. As we go from here this week, in all of our interactions with each person that we meet, let’s look for that reflection of God shining out from the other person. Even in the midst of conflict, let us remember that we are looking at God’s image, and treat that person with respect and with love even when we disagree with him or her. And let us never forget to marvel at the created world around us that God has gifted us with, and let us continually think about the relationship we have with all things that are living. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost

John 20:19-23

Breath. Breathing. It’s something that we take for granted until we need it and we can’t get it. When you’re at a higher altitude, as I was for the last several years, you don’t realize that there’s not as much oxygen in the air and it’s more difficult to breathe until you come back down to a lower elevation. You notice how you breathe when you’re huffing and puffing up and down staircases moving heavy boxes of books. When I become anxious or nervous, I notice that I start to get short of breath, and my cat will often notice, come up to me, and start purring—which is also a form of breathing—and that calms me down, and I start breathing normally again. Finally, we notice our breathing when we have to use medical devices to help us breathe. For example, I was diagnosed with sleep apnea a few years back and now I use a CPAP at night to help me breathe—and what a difference this machine has made in helping me to feel healthy again. Much of our health, both physical and mental, comes down to how we breathe, and the quality of the breaths we take.

Today is Pentecost, the day when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples who were waiting in prayer for this gift. The story in Acts is full of wind and fire and speaking in foreign languages and people hearing the good news of Jesus and becoming believers and getting baptized. It’s a fun story to preach on; everyone likes to talk about the flash and the bang that the Holy Spirit used on that day, and laugh at how the people outside the group of disciples thought that they were drunk at nine in the morning! But sometimes it might lead to us thinking that this is the only way the Spirit works, and why doesn’t the Holy Spirit work like that today, so that 3000 people can be baptized in one day and our churches could be full again. Our lessons from 1 Corinthians and from John speak about other ways that the Holy Spirit is given and manifests itself. So today I want to focus on how the Holy Spirit is manifesting itself in our Gospel lesson from John. And it all has to do with breath and with breathing.

If today’s Gospel sounds familiar, then I know that you were in worship the Sunday after Easter. This is part of the Easter story, and it’s the one that includes the story of Thomas, he who would not believe that Jesus had risen until he put his hands into Jesus’ wounds from his crucifixion. But today we don’t get to hear about Thomas; we only get the first part of that story. So, just to refresh our memories—because it has now been 50 days since we heard the story of Jesus’ resurrection—I’m going to give you a summary of what has happened in this Gospel. Early on the first day of the week—the third day since Jesus had been crucified, died, and was buried—Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found it empty. She ran to tell the disciples that the tomb was empty. Peter and the other disciple came and found it just as Mary said, and they went back home. But when Mary stayed at the tomb weeping, Jesus came to her and showed that he was alive. Then he told her to go and tell the disciples what she had seen and that Jesus would be returning to his father. So Mary did just that. And now we come to today’s scene.

Jesus comes in through the locked doors, into a room that’s full of fear, and says, “Peace be with you.” Picture that for a moment. I mentioned before that when I get anxious, my breathing becomes shallower. Now, picture a room full of Jesus’ disciples, already full of fear, they are not breathing very deeply. And then, Jesus comes in—through a locked door! Well, no wonder he says, “Peace be with you!” And no wonder he says it twice. The hearts of these disciples, already fearful, leapt with even more fear as they saw their teacher, who had just died a gruesome death. People don’t come back from the dead, after all. If it were me, I think my heart would go a mile a minute upon seeing Jesus appear in front of me. And my breath would get shallower than it already had been.

Then, Jesus does something very strange. Our translation says that he breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Well, the translators are softening the original Greek and taking away the powerful imagery of what’s really going on. Jesus actually did not breathe on the disciples. He puffed air into the disciples. What is translated “Holy Spirit,” more accurately means “holy breath”; the primary meaning of the Greek word pneuma is not “spirit,” but, rather, “breath.” I’d like you all to think for a moment where you may have heard about God puffing breath into someone before.  If you said Genesis 2, you’re absolutely right: “then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” John wants to give us the same idea: Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, is puffing his holy breath, the breath of the one who rose from the dead, into the nostrils of the disciples. He is not only giving them back the breath they were short of because of their fear, he is also making them into a new creation, just as God breathed into Adam’s nostrils to make him into a living being.

And Jesus also says something else, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” We usually don’t think about that line too much. But let’s think about it today. The Father sent Jesus into the world to love us, to teach us, to heal us, and ultimately, to die on the cross for us. Now he sends his disciples into the world to love the world, to teach the world, and to heal the world. Some of those disciples would die a martyr’s death; others would not. But even if we are not called to show our love for the world by our physical death, we are sent into the world to give ourselves away, sacrificially.

So, what does all of this mean for us in our daily lives? First of all, as Jesus’ disciples, we, too, have had the holy breath puffed into us. When we were baptized, we were baptized into the death of Jesus so that we might walk in newness of life. We share in that holy breath, that breath of a new creation and that breath of promised resurrection. And that breath is deep and relaxed. There is no fear when we remember that, no matter how much evil there is in the world, Jesus has given us hope in him and in the new creation that he has breathed into us. Every breath that we take is a breath breathed into us by God. And that brings me to the second point: Because every breath that we take is breathed into us by God, we, too, are sent into the world as the Father has sent Jesus. The God-breath in us, or, if you would rather, the Holy Spirit in us, enables us to see that each person that we meet also has God-breath in him or in her. When we recognize that, then we can see that each person has worth in God’s eyes and is loved by God. And so, we are empowered to go into the world, showing God’s love to each person we meet, teaching them about Jesus, and giving sacrificially of ourselves so that others may have enough to live.

On Friday and Saturday, I was at Synod Assembly, both participating in a learning experience and participating in conducting the business of the Synod. Our keynote speaker, Dave Daubert, gave us some good news and some bad news about the ELCA as a whole. The good news is that we Lutherans have great theology: we know that God comes to us, and that we don’t come to God, just as we see Jesus today coming to his disciples and puffing breath into them. The bad news is that we are an aging denomination: Daubert estimates that, unless things change radically, the ELCA as we know it has only about 5 to 10 years of life left. Yes, you heard me right: 5 to 10 years. Here’s some more bad news: when they took a survey of Lutherans, they found that 25% of those who come to church are “functional agnostics”; that is, they come and they say the right words, but they don’t really believe. Perhaps they come because a family member drags them each week. Another 47% of people who come know the story, and believe it, but they leave it behind in the church each week; they don’t know it deeply; they don’t know it well enough to integrate the story of Jesus into their lives on a daily basis. Maybe some of you here today fall into one of these two categories. Maybe some others of you really do have a deeper relationship with Jesus, and that’s great. But no matter where we are in our relationship, we can all stand to grow deeper roots. And when we have those deeper roots, and when we have that deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, then it makes us easier for us to go out into the community and to invite others to come and see, and to deepen their roots as well.

I’m not going to lie to you: those statistics I heard filled me with fear. But I, and each one of us here today, have the breath of God breathed into us. In Jesus, we are a new creation. We have his resurrection-breath in us, and when we remember that, we remember that we have nothing to fear. Jesus has conquered death for us. Jesus is here with us, in us, all around us, everywhere in our daily lives. He is with us not only in the bread and the wine here at the table, but he is also with us when we help our family members who are ill, when we have conversations with one another, when we eat together in our homes. He is with us when we are sad and he is with us when we are happy. Each breath we take is a reminder that God causes us to live, and is a reminder that God causes each person around us to live. What do we have to fear? Let us deepen our roots, re-learn our faith and re-connect with that holy breath, and then go forth to love others, to teach others, to bring healing to the world, and to give ourselves away for the sake of the world. Amen.